Boston and Charlotte met tonight in a game that turned out to be closer than anyone would have expected. Boston came into tonight’s game with a record of 10-1, while Charlotte’s was 6-6. Both teams were on the second game of back-to-backs, and their previous games could not have been more different. While the Celtics easily dominated the Lakers on Friday night, the Bobcats fell to the surging Orlando Magic. The Bobcats’ Gerald Wallace was injured during that game and, despite a reportedly clean MRI this afternoon, was pulled from tonight’s lineup just before game time. For the ever-superstitious Boston fan, these facts all added up to one thing: trouble.
The Bobcats came out feisty and grabbed an early lead sparked by the strong play of Boston College alum Jared Dudley. This was Dudley’s first NBA start, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Dudley made Charlotte’s first two baskets and was in the middle of almost every play. Raymond Felton also had a strong showing, using his strength to overpower Rondo and get to the hoop, to finish or dish, almost at will.
The Charlotte crowd responded to their team’s strong start with an intensity that could only be described as tepid. When the prefabricated public address announcer boomed "De-Fense" partway through the quarter, his call was met with silence. The Celtics unfortunately seemed to be mirroring the energy of the Bobcat crowd, rather than that of the Bobcats. Their play in the first quarter was downright lethargic.
Despite the Celtics’ lifeless performance (possibly influenced by their travel delay and 3am arrival in Charlotte), they did just enough on the offensive end to keep pace with the Bobcats. Kevin Garnett led the team with six points, followed by Ray Allen’s four. The Celtics ended the first quarter deadlocked at 23.
Given the relatively lifeless play of the starters, it is perhaps unsurprising that Doc Rivers chose to start a complete second unit (i.e., sans Pierce, Ray Allen or Garnett) in the second quarter. The Celtics bench played competently, with a deliberate effectiveness. If an NBA bench’s oath starts "first, do no harm", then mission accomplished. At the eight minute mark Pierce and Garnett re-entered the game (Rondo shortly followed suit) with the Celtics sporting a 31-30 lead.
After a shaky couple of minutes in which the C’s slipped 37-31, Rivers called a timeout and brought Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins back into the game. A wide open three by Raymond Felton brought the Bobcats’ lead to nine, but Garnett’s loud put back after his own miss and subsequent foul shot cut it to six. Pierce’s physical power-it-to-the-hoop game then kept the score close for the next several minutes.
Toward the end of the quarter, the Celtics had a nice 9-0 run to grab the lead. Unfortunately, the Celtics’ intensity waned once again in the final minute of the half, and the Bobcats leapt to fill the void, taking a 53-48 lead. Even the Charlotte crowd seemed interested in this development.
The Celtics’ dispassionate performance continued in the third quarter, with Pierce and Garnett doing just enough to keep the game close. Rondo seemed to be the only player with a spark tonight, harassing Felton and the other Bobcats on the defensive end. Meanwhile, Ray Allen struggled mightily with his shot, ending the quarter 3-12 from the field, including 0-4 from three. The Bobcats, on the other hand, were counterpunching effectively, with Emeka Okafor shining early in the quarter and Felton late.
Given the recent history of the Celtic franchise, one could be forgiven for starting to worry that the Celtics didn’t quite have this game in hand. Nonetheless, we waited patiently for the C’s to kick into gear and pull away in the fourth from a clearly outclassed team. Up to this point, the Celtics had expended just enough energy to keep the game close, but not enough to pull away. They nudged ahead 76-75 at the end of the third on a James Posey three-pointer.
In the fourth quarter, the pattern of punch and counterpunch continued: Matt Carroll opened the quarter by hitting a deep three; Allen missed a jumper but followed it up a moment later with two made free throws; Carroll immediately drilled another jumper, and so on. Following a time-out three minutes in, Pierce nailed a three from the top. Shortly thereafter, Garnett gathered a feed from Pierce and slammed it. Next Posey drained a three and the Celtics assumed the lead, 88-87.
The knockout punch seemed imminent. However, the Bobcats did not get the memo and continued to play with fire. A wild buzzer-beating 22-foot bank shot from Richardson pushed the Bobcats ahead 90-89. Even the troubled Ghost of Jeff McInnis was contributing, at least until he incurred an uncontested ten second call while bringing the ball up court with under two minutes left.
Down by two with 50 seconds left, Pierce (stop us if you’ve heard this one before) pulled up for a three from the top of the key that grabbed iron but not the lead. The Celtics forced a 24 second violation, which left them with 16.6 seconds on the clock. They moved the ball clumsily around the perimeter, narrowly avoiding a turnover, and Pierce missed an ugly fallaway from the foul line.
The Celtics followed the Pierce miss with an intentional foul, but because they were not in penalty, Charlotte had to inbound the ball. We began to compose lines about the one that got away, and hoped that the Celtics will have learned a lesson tonight.
In a moment fit to be narrated by the heavenly lungs of Johnny Most: "House steals the ball!" Eddie House deflected the inbound pass to Pierce, who tipped it to an open Ray Allen, who set from three and got nothing…..but…..net. Final score: Celtics 96-95 over the Bobcats.
Perhaps learning lessons is overrated. Winning games at the buzzer is clearly not.